Marshall Allen Sabir Mateen Michael Ray Toshi Makihara & Jeffrey Shurdut
Tonic, New York
What do you say? I've arrived in New York to spend the first week in bed recovering from my flu that started on the flight. In nearly customary form, have spent the recovery days digging away at my MAM, the Melbourne Administrative Mountain, that I carry around with me wherever I go. It's lucky the Lufthansa/United baggage allowance is so generous, and that I didn't bring microphone stands, tripods, favorite chairs etc. This mountain is 40cm in height, made up of A4 sheets (they have different papers here?)), and estimated at 6kg's heavy. It's separate to my email administrative mountain, which I have been getting faster at, too.
Little wonder that today, 8 days later, I finally put my mind to purchasing art materials, and buy some little expensive paint tubes by manufacturers I have never used before: years of history behind them. No doubt I will keep mixing fast drying alkyds with these traditional slow-dryers, making for a new and old mix that would insult any serious colour-man. New York Central Art Supplies has the prettiest range of brushes, and I bought five beauties for a week's savings, or in my money an equivalent to five bottles of decent white wine. And choosing my likely favorites from their 60 or so canvas samples took me literally 90 minutes, while in the background an 88-year old British Portrait Painter chatted about 1920's American Portraitists to the shop owner, who in turn preferred to talk about how Jasper Johns still shops there, and how he got drunk with Willem de Kooning in the 1950's etc etc etc). Music technology stores just haven't been like that for me, I must say. It's no wonder my dearest companion Elissa Sadgrove is so much more efficient at getting her gouache colours to work on her bagel/donut series, which I hope will fund our continued stay in this cheap backwater called New York.
You'll be happy to hear that for the full first week I did manage to avoid music gigs completely, instead concentrating on filling the fridge for the family, rearranging our flat to avoid the lounge room light shining onto Alina's sleeping quarters, and barricading heaters and dangerous cables off with tables, chairs, stuck together cardboard, pieces of wood and suitcases. But in the second week, I wasn't so lucky. I was caught off guard, and before I knew it I was catching Downtown trains leading to the hallowed Tonic to see Marshall Allen. Now having a wider rather than deeper musical collection, you all know that I am a flimsy researcher in the field. But I DO love Sun Ra's music with a deep and devoted passion, so to have one of SR's main men, always described as so faithful, this was too good an opportunity to miss. I wanted to feel the residue, at the very least.
Arriving a little late, I walked through the swinging doors, they were already going, and, if you can believe me, I shed the briefest of wet tears, as I entered the room shimmering with blistering saxophones shards. For that first second I felt as if I had come to experience this music in an appropriate place for the first time. Free Jazz had been such a CD experience for me, for so long, it was now beautiful to walk into it in real time in real space.
The first 40-minute set was indeed very exciting, as the players traveled through the range of free jazz country available to them: From quiet to loud and frantic, slow to fast, apart and occasionally together etc. They seemed to be having a good time, and enjoyed each other's company on stage. Marshall Allan is an eminent 81 years of age, but showed no signs of slow-down as his fingers raced over the saxophone, barely touching it, as a cap hid his face. The secretive look disappeared as he stared the audience down when he put down the ground for a piece with a short, odd and off-key funky loop. Sabir Mateen has also been playing saxophone since the '70's, and he was the least showy, the steadiest of the front men. He had the stage demeanor of a wise man. Michael Ray on the other hand played the role of troublemaker and entertainer, as well as playing some very good sax and keyboard/synthesizer. A glittering jacket proclaimed his name in large swinging handwriting, and he used to play with Sun Ra and Kool & the Gang. He retained some of the things he learnt from Sun Ra about funny and spacey keyboards. Jeffrey Shurdut, who if you trust Google has more profile as a painter than as a musician, played some odd guitar in the group. At times it hit the right spot, either performing the role of bass or as melody that sat within the other's playing. But at other times it was lost in the mix, or seemed at a little incongruous: It was odd to hear his feedback-drone solo in the middle of a gig that oozed Jazz. The drummer Toshi Makihara was excellent but stayed in the background, listened well and responded to or led all the clues in a proficient manner. He was the only player not to be awarded a solo for the night.
The ferocity these artists achieved was breathtaking at times. But it wasn't history in the making, either. It didn't feel outdated, or even dated, (except when Marshall Allan pulled out his electric saxophone, the one that seems to have a WahWah pedal built into it), but what bothered me was that they obviously didn't play together sufficiently often to be able to do the 'together parts' particularly well, struggling a bit with those sections. They would ever so briefly grasp at a slow collective movement, only to then quickly move off into their individual directions and their collaborative apart-playing. So in the end it felt like a great workaday gig, with performers that have an amazing amount of history behind them.
But the fact that it is Jazz that I picked up on here first is a reminder to myself of the most treasured parts of my music collection, and of the musical works that I love deepest, even if I listen to them less and less often. Picking up the Jazz newspaper on the way out of the club has put the fear into me: By the end of February I will have had the chance to see about eight of my top fifteen artists. So I am hoping in the next weeks to visit Cecil Taylor (who is 75, and I just read that he doesn't use emails, so how does he get around, I wonder?), Charles Tolliver, The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Joseph Jarman, all of whom I have one or more records by (dating from the fifties to the eighties, but not much beyond in my collection) that have deeply touched me. But that's the thing about going to see these artists who've been working for such a long time (Cecil started recording in the 50's, Jarman and Tolliver in the 60's), that as a fan who is stuck in the past, and as someone who doesn't have the recent recordings, I will be sitting there reconciling my historical notes with their current whereabouts, with a Campari on ice in hand, no doubt. It's a cross I can bear, must bear, and will bear with dignity. I can always walk out at the end, muttering to myself that 'Well, Charles Tolliver, that gig was just ok. Your double album from 74 is lukewarm and I always regret buying it trusting your name. But man, that thing you recorded in '66, I love it to bits, and figured you could not do wrong after that. Why did you leave the path? And that makes me wonder which of my creative bits people will pick out over the years for loving or for loathing???
But the other thing was that it was just three dozen keen onhearers in the crowd at Tonic last night, and I remember Warren Burt telling the story years ago, at one of his quiet afternoons (for privileged visitors who made the journey down into the backstreets in Richmond to hear Warren's beautiful piece and read his 8-page program), that in New York you get the same or smaller crowds than you might on a similar night in Melbourne. A gig at BUS Gallery, West Space or at The Footscray Arts Center would have been busier than Tonic that night... and of course any gig with ex-Sun Ra'ers in it would have been prized highly.
So with Warren's warning from ten years ago, that all made sense. As I quickly worked out the likely takings for the musos that night, ($60 each, maybe???), I remembered what it was all about: The interaction, the joy of making, the play of performing, the pleasure of communicating. Henry Threadgill, who should also be amazing this coming weekend, has a different take on that same phenomenon in a current interview in the Jan all about jazz – new york: "There are no scholars trying to analyze what I've done and critics certainly don't know," he said. "Nobody gets reviews so people look at you the same way year after year. I could turn into Jesus tomorrow and you wouldn't know it." I will look out for signs at the Knitting Factory this weekend...
And as music is for pleasure, it's painting that really earns you a living (and this lovely studio and apartment in New York). Speaking of which, I've just completed my consignment notice for Conny Dietzschold for my show that starts in Sydney in mid February 2005. As with all my work, it was a scramble getting that work done, and I'm surprised I haven't been sick for a month trying to recover from the trauma of finishing up art and life in Melbourne to go on this trip! But I'm very happy with the paintings. I've been seeing someone about this last-minute thing I have going in all parts of my life, the thing that I can't get things done without a gun to my head. Let's see if it can be fixed, and if I've got anything to say if I don't say it at the last minute... I'll leave while pondering that, and thank you for your generous time in reading through this monologue with little clues and in-jokes there hidden away for my friends...
Missing you all but having a good time,
Feb 02, 2005
Feb 01, 2005—Tonic, New York
* Marshall Allen, Sabir Mateen, Michael Ray, Toshi Makihara & Jeffrey Shurdut at 10pm, $10