HARMOLODIC MONK, SOUND EXPLORATIONS, AND THE YEAR'S END IN RETROSPECT
Harmolodic Monk: Matt Lavelle and John Pietaro at the Firehouse Space, Oct 19, 2013. Photo by Laurie Towers
Sometimes life can be like a whirlwind. So much went on over the past 12 months that I can hardly believe we are near year's end. Between the rush of music, the passage of time and the ongoing stress of my day job, I guess I lost track of time. But here we are, now, deep into December. We have had a fairly mild weather in NYC, though this past week we saw snow and cold weather try to take a bite out of us. But New Yorkers are hard. And just now the weather man reported that it will be 57 degrees on Sunday, adding to the sense of uncertainty. Do I still have time to buy the pertinent Christmas cards to avoid being ostracized by family?? And talk about rush: a couple of months ago I actually self-published my book of short stories and poems, NIGHT PEOPLE AND OTHER TALES OF WORKING NEW YORK, which had been in the works since about 2009. Life is just one fantasia after another, isn't it? Getting passed the newfound ulcer in my belly and moving beyond the effects of the insomnia that pops up when I think I am finally relaxing, its good t know that creativity has been the healing force. Ayler was damned right. And this year there was much to be healed by....
2013 has been a year of vibrant soundscapes, with a wide variety of performances in the company of very talented, powerful musicians. How can I complain? Most of my playing has been on the vibraphone---the instrument that I consider my true voice---but other percussives have happily been called for as well. And why not....I am happy to have a vast collection. This year my work with Ras Moshe, celebrated reeds monster, has increased tremendously and we played together in numerous formats ranging from duet (where I either played vibes or drumkit or hand drums) to trio (on vibes and percussion; with guitarist Dave Ross, or bassists Shayna Dulberger or Lisa Mezzacappa), to quartet (the incredible one which included guitarist Anders Nilsson and drummer/percussionist Andrew Drury remains in heart! Here I am again playing vibes/percussion). We played a couple of gigs for Arts for Art in there too. There's also been our ensemble the Red Microphone which released a debut CD this year. And there's been a great assortment of Ras' larger bands. All that and there was the release of the Erika Dagnino Quartet's disc 'Signs' which included Erika's poetry, Ras' reeds and flute, Ken Filiano's bass and my vibes and percussion. The association with Ras is one which is ever-changing and intense. Its been said that we share a telepathic relationship, intertwining lines and improvising endlessly through streams of consciousness.
There's also been gigs with vocalist Maryanne DeProphetis (at the I-Beam playing twisted standards!) and Nora McCarthy (at the Cornelia St Café for my event 'An October Jazz Revolution') and the band SoSaLa (at NuBlu). And my own Dissident Arts Orchestra performed several times this year, offering jagged scores to silent film classics or backing poet Sana Shabazz. That was fun in a whole other way. And as I am so fond of backing poets, I am thrilled to have developed a rapport with Steve Dalachinsky, a serious contender for Beat poet of this era. I performed with him in duet at my own Dissident Arts Festival this summer and more recently at Shapeshifter Lab for the Memorial Concert for John Tchicai with a band that included Steve Swell, Will Connell and others. I really ate this one up. I was also part of the jam session that closed out the big '50th Anniversary Concert of ESP-Disk' at JACK in Brooklyn. And reeds player Rocco John Iacovone began his own series late this year, creating a mixed ensemble I have been happy to bring my vibes to, where he presents different composers each month. It occurs at Pianos in the East Village. My own piece is scheduled to be presented at the January gig! The Red Microphone had a busy year and we are closing it off on 12/22 at Theater 80 on St Mark's Place, performing the opening segment to a large-scale awareness-raiser for Mumia Abu-Jamal.
And my work with the legendary Karl Berger has continued of course---this was year two with his Improvisers Orchestra. The band is amazing and never fails to inspire. So many noted improvisers have been a part of this band that it would be almost impossible to recall each one. No matter how strong of an impact they have had on the whole. With this ensemble I play conga, bongos, orchestra bells, various metals, suspended cymbals and many small percussives too. Sitting next to Warren Smith's drumkit (or none-too-shabby subs like Lou Grassi or Joe Hertenstein!), my hands are on fire as I offer thunderous rhythms and stinging orchestra bells to accentuate the screaming horns section. Our final gig of the year was in mid-December and Karl is now reviewing tapes of the Orchestra's performances for release as a CD. The band was 32 strong at its largest but we have not slipped below 20 this year. Happily, I ushered many of my close musical associates into the Orchestra including Ras Moshe, Rocco John Iacovone, Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic. And Matt Lavelle. Now there's a unique guy...
I met trumpet player/alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle at several different Ras Moshe gigs. Here's a very hip musician who regularly plays with Bern Nix and spent several years studying with Ornette Coleman. We spoke at a few of these gigs and he told me of this vision he had for a duet with vibes playing Monk composition by way of the Harmolodic theory of Mr Coleman. Wow. What a challenge, I thought, and what an amazing opportunity to engage in something truly new and inspirational. Has it been done before? Highly unlikely. When a reviewer asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of Ornette, this revolutionary founder of Be-Bop said, "That cat's crazy". But upon closer examination, one cannot help but see that had it not been for Monk, there couldn't be an Ornette as we know him. The modernist vision is apparent. But isn't there something else that somehow draws "Light Blue" or "Ruby, My Dear" to "Lonely Woman" or "Beauty is a Rare Thing"? The guitarist Jack DeSalvo said just the other night, after hearing our duet Harmolodic Monk, "The folk form that is at the core of both of them is the Blues". And he is right. It is the glue that keeps their musics imbedded in tradition, a place to boldly grow out of. Their rapprochement to blues cannot be mistaken, nor can it be avoided if one is to play either of their works. So when Matt and I first got together to attempt this exploration at Ayers Percussion studio in the theatre district, it somehow fell right into place from the start. There was no question that this experiment had a life of its own. Now that I think of it, how could it not?
We debuted at one of Ras Moshe's Music Now events at the Brecht Forum and locked in a modicum of performance practice in this unique repertoire. We took it then to ABC No Rio and the Firehouse Space. Damn, there was simply no turning back. Somewhere in there, Jack DeSalvo signed us to his Unseen Rain label and asked us to record a duo CD---even as we contemplated whether or not we needed a bassist. But no, Jack saw this as a natural duet. Our record date is slated for January 6. We rehearsed just last week for a gig the other day up in Beacon NY: part of James Keepnews' new jazz series which has been itself growing in leaps and bounds. During the rehearsal, Matt requested that I move to hand drums for a piece and that grew into a medley of "Green Chimneys" and "52nd St Theme". Wow, that worked. Well. We discussed stretching things further, the outer reaches of harmolodics perhaps. I brought out a large frame drum, a 22" bodhran and we crafted a brand new concept where "Monk's Mood" existed. That rehearsal and the wonderful performance which followed it gave us the chance to envision that lay-out of the album. Oh, its gonna be a killer.
Going forward, Harmolodic Monk is a major part of my 2014. We would love to have the album out early in the year----and who knows where else this music, this soundscape of the new, can take us. Hell, ulcers aside, casting out day-to-day stress and winter blues, its all about the Epistrophy.
Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts on the Left ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...