Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Sounds of Liberation: Modernists, Dissidents and the Music

I was very pleased when, several weeks ago, I was contacted by "The New York City Jazz Record" and asked to write a piece for the paper's Megaphone column. I had submitted several record reviews to the editor over the past couple of years but not a one ever ever saw publication; I assumed that my writings would not end up in this, the one music periodical I religiously read each month. However, when I got word that the proposed writer of the August column had fallen through and that the issue was soon to go to print, I was happy to comply. From the top I knew I had to submit the kind of piece I always wanted to write in such a paper: one which sought out the revolutionary heart in this music.

The death of Charlie Haden occurred shortly before my invite from "The Jazz Record". The news was heavy for many of us in this community, it seemed to hang in the air like a pall. As WKCR-FM played non-stop Haden in celebration of his life, there was a beleaguered sadness in the listeners. I was inspired to write and considered crafting an obit of this great musician and activist, but knew immediately that many others were already busy at this task. Still, the idea stayed with me and so when I got the call from the paper's editor to submit a piece, I knew that it had to speak of Charlie Haden, not simply as an individual, a "jazz great", but as a symbol of liberation in music. As music. Haden's legacy is around me each day, but one doesn't have to look far to recognize that he was in the tradition of many before him. Inherent in this music is the blood spilled in the Middle Passage and on the streets of Birmingham---and most recently in Staten Island at the hands of the NYPD. The music contains  the call of unity and pride and beauty. It holds the history of endless uprisings, swathed in the blues, free improvisation and through-composed music too. It is of the streets, the clubs, the road, the galleries, the concert halls and the universities. Since the 20th century--at least--the musician has been armed with musical-instrument-as-weapon, and at times a rolled fist as well...

The Sounds of Liberation: Modernists, Dissidents and the Music
By John Pietaro

The recent loss of Charlie Haden, a figure at once revolutionary as an artist and as a cultural worker, has rekindled fond recollections of the Liberation Music Orchestra. The LMO united radically progressive forces in music, celebrating revolutions past as it sought to inspire the populace toward profound change. Haden organized this ensemble as not only a vehicle of performance but a living example of community: its ranks were an array of peoples and its co-founder was Carla Bley; this in a time when people of color and women were daily fighting for social justice. The band’s repertoire included daring, improvisational arrangements of songs that held a visceral importance to earlier generations of revolutionaries. And while Spanish Civil War ballads and Hanns Eisler’s “Song of the United Front” acted as educational metaphors, other titles like his own “Song for Che” spoke of struggle more immediately in our midst. Charlie Haden viewed this music called jazz as “rebellion”. The LMO’s music was as radical as its politics.

Still, the causes go on and activist music remains a necessity. Art cannot help but be political--and art at its most fearless was always a Left-wing thing. The conscience of the revolutionary artist, the cultural worker, engages in actions within creativity. We see evidence of this in historic uprisings: the Industrial Workers of the World had songwriters, poets and painters as organizers and some, like Joe Hill, are renowned for their work and sacrifice. The Socialist Party counted such literary giants as Jack London and Carl Sandburg in its ranks. And the Communist Party maintained an amazing list of artists including Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, John Reed, Langston Hughes, Rose Pastor Stokes, Richard Wright, Isadora Duncan, Pete Seeger, Aaron Copland and countless others, many of whom became blacklisted for their convictions. And beyond this, when artists pushed back against the conservative reins of academia, when the need for an avant garde to fight the confines of structure and tonality and verse arose, the political Left nurtured it. Modernism was the voice of a new age---an age of daring, change, awareness. Revolution.

And so Charlie Haden’s sentiment that jazz is rebellion music: you might ask yourself how it could not be. Here’s an artform that was born of a people taken forcefully from their homeland, stripped of name and language, and sold into bondage. Families were separated, children and women victimized and men were forced into brutal submission or braved death. The white capitalist structure attempted to disappear the Africans’ sense of self and culture. And yet, early jazz, collective improvisation over marches and blues and shouts, rose from the ordeal and thrived. A testament of the strength of an oppressed nation. The music that developed in and around New Orleans was in itself fight-back in light of the atrocities that went on after Reconstruction. Especially in the Deep South.  

In the Modern age jazz grew from the visions of Louis Armstrong into the brilliance of Duke Ellington and it became a popular music and a wildly commercial industry. For some. As Paul Whiteman was unjustly crowned ‘King of Jazz’, radio broadcasted a sanitized vision of the blood and toil that begat the music. But the actual artform grew in spite of this racist aberration. And as it did, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit”, a song composed by a sympathetic white communist, to a hushed crowd at CafĂ© Society. Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” rocked concert halls. The Harlem Renaissance changed the world. Be-bop took it back.

The music soared on the wings of improvisation and advanced forms as the struggles against lynching and for Civil Rights morphed into Black Liberation: ‘Freedom Now Suite’, “Alabama”, “Fables of Faupus”, “Malcolm, Malcolm Semper Malcolm”, “Attica Blues”. Indeed, a Free Jazz. The movement required a music that reflected the intensity of the times.  A New Thing.  Liberation of sound and mind along with the People. The avant garde enraptured. Though the independence of the African American artist was central to this boldest of protest musics, it often included and celebrated all cultures—like the LMO.

This striving for a music of liberation in every sense of the word continues. This writer’s musical performances consistently feature socio-political content and there is an active circle here in NYC of like-minded others. Some of the most outspoken will gather on August 16 for the ninth annual Dissident Arts Festival. The revolution may not be televised but strains of it can be heard in the heat of this summer.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Another Year, Another DISSIDENT ARTS FESTIVAL: DAF Uptown

In its nine year history, the Dissident Arts Festival has demonstrated a strong creative growth and has also made significant statements about a variety of socio-political issues. For a concise history on the Fest's development, see the lower section of the press release which follows this brief essay. But suffice to say that this annual event--initially a forum for cultural workers to speak out against the Bush Administration--has thrived through changes of region and venue: from the Howland Cultural Center up in Beacon NY to the Brecht Forum in Greenwich Village and now to El Taller on the Upper West Side. The loss of the Brecht Forum, a radical political and arts center downtown since the 1970s, hit the entire community very hard and it left me frantically trying to figure out which venue would be the best to continue this work in. While playing one of many gigs with Karl Berger's Improvisers Orchestra at El Taller it hit me that this space shared the Brecht Forum's commitment to the Left as well as the arts and did serious community work too--there could be no other choice.
This year's Dissident Arts Festival takes us uptown to El Taller during that space's 35th anniversary. The music will continue to be cutting edge free jazz, new music, radical song, protest poetry and a very outspoken kind of performance art too. Our headliner will be a powerhouse quartet co-led by multi-reedist Will Connell and French horn player Vincent Chancey: Will's history includes years of close work with the legendary Horace Tapscott. He was active with various components of the Black Arts Movement on the West Coast and has shared the stage with countless masters of this forward-looking improvisational music. Will was also the music copyist for the premiere of Ornette Coleman's 'Skies of America'. Vincent is internationally renowned as the leading French horn player in all of jazz and has performed with some of the most important exponents of contemporary music. Their quartet is rounded out by a monster rhythm section of Max Johnson and Jeremy Carlstedt, two young lions that have proven their importance in this sphere and who have yet amazing careers ahead of them.
Also on hand will be El Taller's founder and artistic director, Bernardo Palombo, a celebrated writer and performer of neo-Nueva Cancion music. We are thrilled to pull Bernardo out of semi-retirement to play for the public again! Other acts on the bill is vocalist Andrea Wolper and bassist Ken Filiano in duet (this pair needs NO introduction to creative music audiences) and experimental guitarist and activist Juan Quinonez' trio Truth to Power! (with bassist Michael Bisio), socio-political jazz poet Raymond Nat Turner's ensemble Upsurge! (featuring reeds heavy Ras Moshe and bassist Ken Filiano). I am excited to not only present my liberation jazz quartet The Red Microphone but also my duet with trumpeter/alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle, Harmolodic Monk. HM will be using our performance spot to celebrate the official release of our debut recording, "Harmolodic Monk" (Unseen Rain Records, 2014). Also, the Festival will welcome rad performance artist Crystal Shipp back to our ranks and poet Sana Shabazz; the latter will be accompanied by my much better half Laurie Towers on electric bass :) And poet and union activist Chris Butters joins the list of Festival performers for the first time.
As we have done for the past couple of years, the event will close off with a screening of a revolutionary silent film and its live improvised score will be provided by Festival house band, the Dissident Arts Orchestra. This year, like last, we present Sergei Eisenstein's 1926 masterpiece 'Battleship Potemkin'. As the Dissident Arts Festival is much more tan an amalgam of its parts---it is in itself a concerted statement about social justice, we hope to make this a real community event. Come to NYC's beautiful Upper West Side for a great later afternoon meal, an early evening stroll and then at 6PM head up the stairs to El Taller Latino Americano to engage in a 51/2 hour immersion into revolutionary cultural work!
All details follow.....

New York, NY: The 9th annual Dissident Arts Festival, a celebration of revolutionary Free Jazz, New Music, World Sounds and radical Poetry, Performance Art and Film, moves uptown to the celebrated cultural space El Taller Latino Americano as it celebrates its 35th anniversary.

The Dissident Arts Festival serves as a showcase of radical arts commemorating the rich heritage of movement culture. The 2014 edition encompasses a tapestry of liberation jazz and new sounds including Festival headliner WILL CONNELL and VINCENT CHANCEY’S SADHANA Quartet, THE ANDREA WOLPER PROJECT, THE RED MICROPHONE, BERNARDO PALOMBO, TRUTH TO POWER!, HARMOLODIC MONK (celebrating the release of their debut recording), UPSURGE!, performance artist CRYSTAL SHIPP, poets SANA SHABAZZ and CHRIS BUTTERS, and Festival house band, THE DISSIDENT ARTS ORCHESTRA, performing an improvised score to “BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN” (Sergei Eisenstein, 1926)

The Dissident Arts Festival 2014 is produced by Dissident Arts and El Taller.            
Curator/host: John Pietaro.

 DATE: Saturday August 16, 6pm – 11:30pm
SITE: El Taller Latino Americano 2710 Broadway at 104th Street, New York NY,  212-665-9460
6:00-6:30 TRUTH TO POWER! (Juan Quinonez-guitar, Michael Bisio-bass, others TBA)
6:30-6:40  CHRIS BUTTERS (poetry)
6:45 – 7:15 BERNARDO PALOMBO (Bernard Palombo-vocals/guitar, others TBA)
7:20-7:50 THE RED MICROPHONE (John Pietaro-vibraphone/percussion, Ras Moshe- reeds/flute, Rocco John Iacovone-reeds, Philip Sirois-bass)
7:50-8:00 SANA SHABAZZ (Sana Shabazz-poetry, Laurie Towers- electric bass)
8:00-8:30 UPSURGE! (Raymond Nat Turner-poetry, Ras Moshe-reeds/flute, Ken Filiano-bass)
8:35-9:05 SADHANA (Will Connell-reeds/flute, Vincent Chancey-French horn, Max Johnson-bass, Jeremy Carlstedt-drumset)
9:05-9:20  CRYSTAL SHIPP (performance art)
9:20-9:50 ANDREA WOLPER PROJECT (Andrea Wolper-vocals, Ken Filiano-bass)
9:50-10:20 HARMOLODIC MONK (Matt Lavelle-trumpet/alto clarinet, John Pietaro-vibraphone/percussion)
10:25-11:30 THE DISSIDENT ARTS ORCHESTRA/“Battleship Potemkin” (John Pietaro-vibraphone/percussion/conduction, Nora McCarthy-vocals, Cheryl Pyle-flute, Rocco John Iacovone-reeds, Ras Moshe-reeds/flute, Matt Lavelle-trumpet, Gil Selinger-cello, Ken Filiano-upright bass, Laurie Towers-electric bass, others TBA)
The Dissident Arts Festival began life in 2006 in Beacon NY, where it remained for the first four years before moving to NYC in 2010. The Festival’s primary goal was the establishment of an annual showcase of radical protest music, poetry and performance art--perhaps the only such annual fest in the nation. The concept of an art as daring and bold as the participants’ world views soon shaped the Festival’s philosophy and the focus on liberation through free improvisation and post-modern sounds commanded the stage.  Increasingly the Dissident Arts Festival has presented the New Music and Free Jazz statements it remains embedded in now, along with similarly outspoken arts of other disciplines. Over the years, performers and speakers included downtown jazz idol Roy Campbell, folk legend Pete Seeger, celebrated raconteur Malachy McCourt, world jazz icon Karl Berger, latter day Beat poet Steve Dalachinsky, spoken word artist Louis Reyes Rivera, political activist/satirist Randy Credico, free music mainstay Ras Moshe, international poet Erika Dagnino, noted filmmaker Kevin Keating as well as revolutionary hip-hop and rock artists, balladeers and many more. Festival house band the Dissident Arts Orchestra performs live, improvised scores to silent film classics. The Festival has also showcased sessions of free improv, militant poetry, punk-jazz, contemporary composition and tributes to Bertolt Brecht, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, and Phil Ochs along the way. We have also screened relevant films including 'Salt of the Earth', 'Giuliani Time', ‘Cultures of Resistance’, ‘Battleship Potemkin’ and ‘Metropolis’. The Dissident Arts Festival has offered voice to labor legend Henry Foner, progressive political candidates of independent parties, IWW organizers, and social justice organizations such as Occupy Musicians and Local 802 AFM’s Justice for Jazz Artists. Now, in the midst of right-wing fear-mongering and teabag hysteria, radical artists continue to speak out for social change—and creative liberation!

Album review: Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite

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