Band in My Head


Toni Morrison and Samuel Delany both say they write novels they’d like to read but cannot find. In humbler moments I imagine Burnt Sugar my self-pleasuring answer to the void. I invented a band I wanted to hear but could not find. Three guitars two drummers two basses a flute one trumpet one alto two cellos one violin three singers acoustic piano synths turntables triangles laptops optional and a partridge family in a pear tree. Five years later this band still follows the teachings of Shelley Manne: never play anything the same way once.

Blame the Mojo feature where they ask famous folk their favorite shower song and favorite album of all time. Ike Turner and Bootsy Collins both answered Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, as did BS guitarist emeritus Morgan Craft. Three of the funkiest brothers in the world need to hear they can go their own way, go figure. So I popped the question to myself. Self said, Bitches Brew. That was some surprise, because Bitches Brew is not an album that hits you in the heart or the gut so much as the tripping head. More than merely longplaying, Bitches‘ two discs form an epic petri dish, as revealing in jazz terms as two drops of the primordial soup for an organic chemist. A mutation is being born of human genes, and 35 years later you can drown in her amniotic sauce.

Instrumentation is key to the freakish nature of the organism—multiple drummers, multiple electric keyboards, multiple horns, multiple basses, notably the acoustic one plucked by David Holland and the electric one operated by Harvey Brooks. The chopping of wood heard against the pounding of iron and leather. Shango and Ogun working side by side, what a concept. For this reason, Bitches Brew, unlike any of the Miles albums that followed, does not provoke or even propose the end of jazz as we know it. I’ve been told Wynton Marsalis once refused to book George Russell’s big band because Russell used an electric bass. You want to smack him but you get it. The upright is to the trad jazz sound as the 808 is to hiphop—the steady heartbeat of the thing. The electric keyboards are what make Bitches sound like late impressionism though, like what Delany calls the motion of light in water. Branford Marsalis once spoke of putting together an electric band modeled after early Weather Report—upright bass, drums, Fender Rhodes, him, and DJ Premier. If B had made that record instead of Buckshot Le Fonque, I probably wouldn’t be preaching here today.

We know now that Bitches Brew was also conducted into being. Hacked out of orchestral improvisational fits and starts by Miles, who revised as he went along. We also know the degree to which those puzzle pieces were recombinated. Spliced and subjected to looping in Teo Macero’s lab and to such a RZA-sharp degree that no less an authority than Joe Zawinul, who hated the thing after the session, was so startled by the test-tube version he didn’t even recognize his own creation. Affirming Miles’s stated belief that the only way you get anything new to happen in music is by making the best musicians around play beyond what they know. Throw away all their safety nets, including their deadly good taste.

Miles and Teo’s conducted-improvisation process and cut-up procedures were novel in popular music at the time and remain novel in jazz today. Their approach is partly why Bitches evokes the bubble and babble of the human mind. Not like your typical avant-garde music for musicians, more like a novel, with an inner voice as legible as its barefaced narrative one. In this respect Bitches brings to mind other superb musical interior monologues of our time, from the Stones’ Exile on Main Street to Meshell’s Bitter. Studio constructs that emanate Consciousness and leave the impression that the music will be examining its own thoughts and feelings long after we’ve stopped listening.

If Bitches is the mother of Burnt Sugar, Butch Morris is the pater. Point blank, I think Butch’s conduction system is the only way African American improv is going find a way out of its cul-de-sac. I specify African American because I is one of dem, so I care, and because the jazz being produced by African American musicians under 45 is genteel and anemic compared to that by sexagenarians, septuagenarians, and octogenarians Ornette, Cecil, Wayne, Herbie, Bill Dixon, and Sam Rivers. Entropy is what it is. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. The radical conservation of energy inexorably leading to heat-death. In market terms it would be called risk aversion. The risk of being perceived as Ignant. A fear obviously nonexistent in our beloved hiphop, the sine non qua of Ignant Black creativity in our time. Brother Wynton and Uncle Stanley are merely symptomatic of the sense among us middle-class African Americans that our days of rage are done. That the system can be made to work in post-’70s America for those of us who are not several generations deep and still stuck in poverty, public assistance, the PJ’s, public education, and the prison industrial complex. Hiphop’s reality check, in other words, if not hiphop’s real demographic, the silent milky majority in the ‘burbs.

In an ideal world it would work like this: Hiphop would be our blues medium and jazz our abstract-truth medium, the one charged with breaking the silence about the kulchur of the Black poor, our ethnic accent in its most pristine folkloric form, the other charged with speaking the unspeakable, how the human spirit needs more than the spoils of global capitalism. Point blank, hiphop contains all the Black alienation rage and desperate desire for rhythmic pleasure we used to could (sic) hear in jazz, because hiphop is a vessel for all that sound and fury and signifying Cornel West says one cannot not know about being Black in America. The woundedness and the creativity. The blues by any other name. Too accessible and exploitable in hiphop, all too absent in African American improv today.

It’s all about trauma man. I can’t put it any simpler than that. Post slavery post civil rights post P Diddy Halle and Denzel, many Blackfolk wealthy and poor in this country remain among the walking wounded, viral carriers of a historic truth that all the ducats in the world cannot reconcile. The current statistics on Blackmale suicide, three times that of their white brothers, should tell us something. African American music, jazz and popular, should tell us more. And they do: Hiphop in its unpacifiable cry for even more attention and even greater commodity-fetish status, jazz in its quest for structural integrity and museum-piece status. We love Mary J. Blige because all the Aretha in her cracks and dies before it can rise up out of her throat, not in spite of that fact, because what does eventually break out on her tongue is a joyous noise, the soul of the projects. We love Wynton because all the Miles in him, all the NBA in him, comes not from his horn but from his devotional acquisition of power, wealth, status, and fame in the name of jazz. He’s in fact gangsta with it. Therein the conundrum: How can the art of Wynton Marsalis sound as gangsta NBA as the persona and entrepreneurship of Wynton Marsalis? I say by throwing some craps with Butch Morris.

I’ve lived three places in my life and all were strongholds of the Black self-contained band phenomenon. I was born in Dayton, Ohio, funk capital of the Midwest, home of the Ohio Players, Zapp, Slave. When I was 11 the family moved to the land of the go-go, D.C. Chocolate City. At 23 I arrived in Gotham; next thing I know I’m knee deep in the creation of the Black Rock Coalition. I’ve never really wanted to be a musician, I just always wanted to be in a band. Because Black bands are like model negro communities, funktional African American family units. Less exercises in democracy than mirrors of “love and dictatorship,” as Rammellzee has described our government system. Conduction by any other name. Burnt Sugar, baby.

Conduction is a set of baton and hand gestures, 26 and counting, that Butch has developed. They offer the conductioneer the flexibility of a composer on the bandstand, to make orchestral things happen in the moment. You want to turn that bass riff into a horn section? You want the harp to emulate the drums? You want half the band to play the exact same collective improvisation they were playing 15 minutes ago? You want the cellos to stomp over it like Stravinsky? You want the beat to flip from punk to funk to crunk to a one-drop in the same time it takes to read this? And those are just stunts. The best part is how you can coax a unison sound out of any ensemble no matter the instrumentation or how long the musicians have played together. Butch has done conductions with David Murray’s big band and bands of Turkish and Japanese musicians playing everything from “folk” instruments to laptops. He’s done them with poets and could probably do them with painters and dancers. The system is that flexible and that precise.

I’m pretty loose in my definitions of what’s jazz and what ain’t, but I still believe it should at some point privilege the spontaneous creation and interpretation of rhythm, the classic repertoire, and harmolodic noise. The art of the improviser. By the same token the jazz I love the most—that of those lovely dictators Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Betty Carter, Wayne Shorter, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, McCoy Tyner, Billie Holiday, Bill Dixon—also privileges scores, what Bobby McFerrin calls “paper music.” That tension we love: between found rhythm and fixed melody, jump and jive, slick and wicked, raw and cooked, langue and parole. The great riddle of subatomic physics is how the probability of an event can also be a particle. How a question, restless, inconsolable, adrift, can also function like an answer, fixed, final, finite, finished. This paradox plays itself out as the spirit of jazz versus the science of jazz. The spirit of jazz can up and possess anything. A flapper, a writer, a great depression, a turntable, a binary code. Whereas the science of jazz is what can be analyzed and repeated. What used to be fun about jazz was the way it mocked the instability of those categories. There used to be folly dividing the needs of the flesh and the pleasures of the mind, the dancer and the dance. Once jazz was the great organizing paradigm of African American thought, being, and desire because it was where the culture found its most complex representation in the world. Even our politics aspired to the condition of the music: the world after liberation, when Black and human will mean the same thing and the whole world will move accordingly.

Everybody know (sic) you can divide modern artists up between Picasso and Duchamp, between those who want to change the way we visualize the world and those who want to change the way we conceptualize the visual. The Cagiest around today do both. You can also break Black American music down to two essential framers—Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Duke is the summation and the summit. It’s all in there somewhere—Louis, Dizzy, Monk, Stravinsky, Ravel, ragtime, rock and roll, James Brown, Chicago house, Trane. Duke is the grand architect of Black Desire and Black Unity. Duke’s place is the African American dream: the sound of What if democracy worked for us? Duke’s place is what the world would look like if African people’s house was in order. There’s a short line between Duke’s place, King’s dream, and Diddy’s pool parties in the Hamptons—they’re all models of integration.

Monk lives there too, playing with his toys in the attic, grumbling in the basement, ripping and running with the people under the stairs. But Monk’s house is made out of dice, you see; pure probability rules there and pure structure. Life in all its exigent splendor and the tempting, troubling knowledge that to change your luck you have to keep throwing it away. That’s why Monk is the real godfather of hiphop, because everything he plays is a sample—a spectacular fragment of the vernacular whole—and it all rhymes. Any fragment will do, what matters is that we always know who’s doing the talking. This is what we mean by hiphop. Chaos in a cadence, hacking-mad hyperlinks with a big Black personality to back them up. Jazz rarely produces big Black personalities anymore.

There’s some cool cats trying to fuse jazz and hiphop today. Problem is, it’s already been done. Go to On the Corner, Weather Report’s Mysterious Traveler, Herbie’s Sextant and Headhunters. I might also listen to the Freestyle Fellowship’s “Inner City Boundaries”: live acoustic trio and the scatting-cum-rhyming genius syncretism of the one and only Mikah 9. More promising though is when contemporary improvisers incorporate the sonic and rhymic language generated by hiphop’s exploitation of the digital into their playing: the glitch, the break, the scratch, the clicks, the cut, the loop. The dialed-up ellipsis and the quantized non sequitur. What happens when the very Monkian editing processes of signature sampling musicians like the RZA, Tricky, Premier, Easy Mo Bee, Matmos, and Vladislav Delay seem to turn up in the fractured vernacular of today’s hippest improvisers? Cats like Graham Haynes, Nicholas Payton, Cuong Vu, Steven Bernstein, Daniel Carter, Craig Taborn, Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp, Marc Cary, Vernon Reid, Jason Moran, and Melvin Gibbs. Cats like us.

Point blank, I go gaga for conduction because it aligns the information zeitgeist with jazz, providing improvising ensembles a real-time and highly risky platform for some highly unstable ritual operations, a means to possession and prophecy and once again getting Ignant with the thing. Conduction also brings the Information Age’s best features to jazz: encyclopedic memory, democratic interactivity, hyperlinks, an infinitude of virtual realities. It’s also a means for doing the jazz thing with mixed electric, acoustic, and digital ensembles and for those ensembles to be transracial, transnational, transgenerational, transgenre, and transgendered too and then getting them to play in unison beyond what they know.

What do they know? They know from Kenny Dorham and the AACM, from Nusrat Khan and Björk, from the changes to “Little Wing” and the changes to “Little Church.” They know from Thelonious Monk’s ” ‘Round Midnight” and Chaka Khan’s “At Midnight” in dub. They know from A Love Supreme, Le Sacre du Printemps, and The Chronic. What lies beyond all of that? I’m done. I shouldn’t even have to say it.