You'll Know When You Get There

As you know, time is a trick of the mind, so what qualifies a type of music as ´old'? I ponder this potentially profound subject far too early in the morning (9.30). Properly awake, I'd be able to reveal the mystery, meaning, and significance of Time in relation to an individual's age, also bearing in mind the birth of this planet and, of course, the wisdom of Einstein. But here's Stacey Pullen, a young(ish) Detroit producer, citing ´listening to old jazz records' as inspiration for the track, Insidetheoutway. His latest album's called Todayisthetomorrowyouwerepromisedyesterday, which ties in with the Time theme that also runs through my current reading, Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake.

In the book, the ´timequake' strikes in 2001, setting everyone back ten years to live the same lives all over again. Flicking through Time Out, London's listings mag, I feel like we're actually experiencing a timequake, what with so many old bands reforming to revive the possibility of earning cash from past careers. Unfortunately, we're getting the worst of both worlds (the current and the past) since modern pop/rock stars don't know that they should be doing what they were doing ten years ago (attending school), and persist in making music. Old rock stars, meanwhile, know they're in a timequake, which explains their compulsion to get out and do it all again.

´Old jazz' to me is something from the 20s, which doesn't mean to say I'm a pensioner, honest (what's wrong with pensioners anyway?). It means I'm capable of comprehending music made early in the last century. Judging by the nature of Pullen's track, ´old jazz' dates back to mid-70s Herbie Hancock and the much-loved and plundered Fender-lead Fusion of that time. Young music-makers today (and yesterday), like to have a (keyboard) stab at that kind of jazz, perhaps because it connects to the electric fizz of their own techno/d&b times. Not being able to play, in the ancient traditional sense, doesn't stop them programming a beat before doing the old one-finger prod. To his credit, Pullen struggles manfully with the Motor City's mechanised music legacy, in which he was a second gen player, by diversifying, and dancing around the already transformed genres of soul, jazz, electro, whatever.

Perhaps, like Kevin, he's been listening to Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi project, from '71. This and Crossings ('72) have just resurfaced, and mid-priced as they are, you have no excuse not to snap them up. If you thought Fusion was just jazz marrying Disco one year, then getting divorced the next on grounds of lame boogie by Donald Byrd or another brother gone dollar-eyed...you'd be right in most cases. Herb, though, being the brightest bulb in the house, threw some brilliant light on the place where Billy Hart's hi-hats sizzle in a post-production pan'n'scan display of pyrotechnics. Bass lines by Buster Williams, meanwhile, are uptight, outtasight, and cooler than Richard Roundtree's coat. Bennie Maupin's bass clarinet slithers around like a boa on heat, whilst Eddie Henderson and Julian Priester's brass constructions complete the line-up of the hippest urban bushmen (aside from Lester and co) on the planet. It's possible to walk into Priester's Wandering Spirit Song and wake up five years later wondering if it really was all just a dream.

The Crossings album introduced Patrick Gleason and his industrial-sized Moog Synthesizer; one giant leap in the evolutionary process that produced extra-stratospheric hi-tech jazz, as demonstrated on the sublime Quasar. These carefully arranged bleeps and bubbles were, however, just satellites testing the terrain that would be visited by the mothership in the shape of the good doctor's work on the following Sextant, their first album for Columbia.

The Arp of the improvisers? You bet. They burnt the blueprint, and wannabe electro-fusioneers have been trying to piece together the charred fragments ever since, but to no avail. The Rhodes in Hancock's hands were never as successfully explored by the multitudes that followed. Sextant comes at you in three-mile-high-fidelity, from on the corner and into the lab where these scientists of sound concocted antidotes to the disease that riddled the body of jazz. As George said later, the bigger the headache, the bigger the pill. In the form of kick-ass acoustic playing combined with Gleason's synthesised cosmic slop, Rain Dance, Hidden Shadows, and Hornets drop the H-bomb on any pre-conceived notions about Herb's conservative cool. But to school any fools who thought he'd just gone electric in a fit of jazz-rock fad-chasing, he sprays Hidden Shadows with some of that ol' Steinway magic to prove that the unplugged could easily mix it with the Fender.

Eight years earlier, Sun Ra was making some even older jazz and, like Hancock, explored the acoustic possibilities of the piano as a vehicle for unearthly dreams. Having just found Monorails And Satellites on a vinyl reissue, I gave in to the temptation of the classic full-size Rudy Irvin cover. ´Old' Ra though, as you know, can sound like the tomorrow you were promised next week. Someone recently expressed difficulties with the more extravagant sonic creations of Ra, but I won't name and shame him. Of course Ra's downright painful sometimes but, hey, no pain no gain, as they say.

This album might be an easier way of getting your head around the man from Saturn's eccentric musicality. For would-be fellow-travellers, it's more of a magic carpet trip Out There than a mind-blending rocket ride provided by the Arkestra. That said, halfway through Cogitation, you might start yearning for the normality of good ol' planet Earth. Solo piano works might not be the most appealing albums around, but doing the timewarp with Sonny is never less than intriguing, and always more than mere normality, of course. Like Liberace in zero gravity, sometimes, or snatches of James P.Johnson's boogie-woogie remixed as abstract cabaret (?). There's even a standard, Easy Street, to remind us that, whether visualising The Galaxy Way or revisiting more familiar routes, he always knew what time it was.

I'm might lose you now by going even further back in time, way back past WW2, through the 30s...to a place called 1925 where very, very old jazz recordings were being made by musicians facing a big funnel instead of microphones - strange, eh? Like a megaphone in reverse, sound captured by the big end, taken through to the little bit, down some metal pipes, over a thingamajig, across a whatsit (apologies for getting all technical) and onto a 3-inch thick metal slab (the master), then onto 2-inch thick gramophone recordings that found their way into the homes of F.Scott Fitzgerald characters and formed the soundtrack to the decadent bourgeois behaviour of America's middle classes. God bless the land of the free.

But who was blowing into these ancient contraptions that I describe in such detail? None other than Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, yes, those ancient fellows from the time when everything was in black and white (if you're black get back, if you're brown get down, if you're white you're alright). Funny thing how this music sounds even older than classical, what with the masters being the masters and no whiz-kid conductor, or in this case, trumpeter, can exactly reproduce what went on in the way that modern orchestras can precisely replay the grandest of symphonies. The chops of Satchmo are the eighth wonder of the world and, like the pyramids, nobody knows quite how they came to be so damn fantastic.

My three-album vinyl set, The Louis Armstrong Legend, is just perfect, complete with full cover studio portraits of the man on the front of each one - Vol 1, he has a devilish look in his eyes, horn poised just above his lips, fingers above the valves and trademark handkerchief gripped by the other hand, as if teasing, as if saying 'You just wait ´til I put this thing in my mouth and blow!'. Vol 2, three-piece suit with tie crooked out, sitting, hand on hip, other holding the horn angled downwards and a smile that says 'See, I told you I was something!'. Vol 3, a dignified pose, horn held with the bell pointing back, bow tie, a look of total supremacy.

1925 to '28, from My Heart to Don't Jive Me, there are too many heart-stopping high points to pull out and pour words on - besides, what could I say that hasn't already been said about Armstrong? As I write on this Monday morning, the temperature's up and the sun is out, so it really feels as if Spring has sprung, and there can be no finer time to throw open the window and let the sweet joy of Louis's horn swing out onto the streets. Mocked for his happy nature, misunderstood by those who have only heard his vocal hits, you have to dig down through all the bullshit to get to the core of his art, the power of his creativity. But if you can wipe your mind of all preconceptions (about ´Trad', about Louis, about ´Old Jazz') you might find yourself in Shangri-La, on that lost horizon in time.

ę Robin Tomens 2001


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