Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Chaos Across the Sky

Material with The Master Musicians of Jajouka 
Live In Belgium and Warsaw.

The rhythms driving the lives of animals and humans are a means of countering chaos and its threats of extinction.  This arrangement of an environment responding to chaos gives rise to a chaos-rhythm or chaosmos.

 - Deleuze & Gutarri, Mille Plateaux

 courtesy of Yoko Yamabe

photo by Cherie Nutting 

The task of art, philosophy, and science involves confronting chaos according to Deleuze and Guttari in What Is Philosophy?  This dates back at least as far as the ancient Greeks, the first philosophers, who endeavored to put systems of order over the apparent randomity of the natural world.  Chaos, however, does not go down without a fight. It resists order.  The jungle takes back its own - chaos always comes back to break down order.  Science calls that entropy.

Magick mixes elements of art, science and philosophy into a singular approach diving deep into chaos for negentropic purposes.  Powerful music = powerful magick.  This might explain the inevitable chaos that arises when two vigorous musical entities such as Material and the Master Musicians of Jajouka combine forces.  It should come as no surprise.  As Bill Laswell remarked on the way to the Warsaw soundcheck, "When you ride with Jesse James you can expect that you might get shot."  We didn't get shot in that instance, but the drivers did leave three of our musicians back at the hotel. Later, Laswell talked about using chaos as part of the process.  You don't run and hide from it or curse its calamity.  Chaos isn't the enemy, complacency is the enemy.  Art, science, philosophy, and their bastard child magick stay in motion creating coherent trajectories of flight through the chaos endeavoring to stay one step ahead. Always keep the Void at your back is the advice they give you when you get your wings.  The see-saw struggle between order and disorder makes for the chaos-rhythm mentioned in the opening quote, the chaosmos - a word borrowed from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, literature's epic confrontation with chaos. 

Where do I begin?  The efforts to get the proper traveling visas for the Moroccan musicians began months in advance for this latest musical deployment.  They were finally issued days before we had to leave.  The Arabic names probably didn't help along with all their passports showing the same birthday, January 1, due to the common practice in Africa at the time of not recording the day a child is born.  Payments from the promoters were delayed because of their reluctance to fund the operation if half the group couldn't make it.  I received my plane ticket the day before departure.  I was flying on United which had a widespread systems crash with their computers the morning I flew out that fortunately had been straightened out in time for my afternoon flight.  The promoter of the festival in Gent, Belgium had gone to extra lengths and expense to organize a soundcheck and rehearsal the day before our concert, but due to the chaos, half the band couldn't make it.  Material with Jajouka were the headliners for the festival's first night yet we had to go on with a minimal soundcheck, and no rehearsal.  They hadn't played together since the shows in Italy last year.  Its difficult to get together in advance when the group lives on three different continents.

The chaos apparently affected Lady Gaga who headlined the third night of the festival with Tony Bennett.  A story was circulating amongst the festival staff that she requested a Rolls Royce to pick her up to make the 40 minute transit from the Brussels airport to Gent.  Nary a Rolls could be found so they asked for a Bentley instead - also unavailable, but they were able to hire a Maserati for the drive.  When chaos strikes, it really hits hard.  Trooper that she is, Gaga settled for the Maserati.

The performance venue in Gent was situated underneath an extremely large white tent beside a cultural arts building built in the 16th century as a monastery and used as a maternity ward.  It looked to hold about 2 - 3000 people.  I was delighted to discover two front of house sound desks, an analog Midas Heritage board (my favorite)  for the headliner acts and a digital one for the support groups.  I only had Aiyb, Peter and Graham (percussion and horns) for the soundcheck and a stage tech enlisted to bang on the drums.  I pleaded with the Stage Manager and Promoter for a soundcheck the next day before doors opened, and was rewarded with a lecture regarding all the chaos involved in arranging time for us the day before the show.  The Promoter did agree to allow us to check the bass rig and the Jajoukans in the 45 minute change-over between acts.  When it came time to do that, the Stage Manager attempted to block it by saying we couldn't check through the P.A.  I argued with him vehemently, so the two of us marched off like children to the Principal's office, in this case the Promoters trailer, to have him resolve the dispute, which he did in my favor.

I made sure to get to the site early enough to catch some of Jack Dejohnette's group, Made In Chicago that, besides Jack on drums consisted of Muhal Richard Abrams (piano), Roscoe Mitchell (saxophone), and Larry Gray (contrabass and cello).  I loved what little I've heard of Dejohnette's drumming from Bitches Brew (Miles Davis) and from a show I mixed in Frankfurt with him, Laswell, guitarist Derek Bailey, and DJ Disk formerly of the Invisibl Skratch Picklz.  Perhaps it was the mood I was in, but Made In Chicago did absolutely nothing for me - staid, subdued, lackluster except when they took unaccompanied solos, I could really feel the soul in Muhal's piano playing.  By contrast, a strong vital current infused the Green Room  - located far from the stage in the former maternity ward - where Material was working out its set.  Bachir and Mustapha were playing their rhaitas, banishing the chaos.  The acoustics in the stone-walled Green Room, that was actually white, reverberating making them sound like a whole orchestra.

When it came time for the change-over, James was on top of it getting the bass rig checked out and up - the SVT classic head had to be swapped out due to a faulty screaming tube, but the backline company had a spare that worked.  My biggest concern was getting levels for the Jajoukans; to start with, only four chairs were in place for the five musicians.  Straightening, that out, I dashed back to the Green Room to find them outside furiously inhaling nicotine and drinking coffee for their pre-concert stimulants.  They obviously didn't share my sense of urgency, but I was able to get them to the stage and soundchecked before we started.

The media was all over both festivals, the one in Gent broadcast the show on television late at night, probably the same in Warsaw as there was a mobile TV studio in a long truck that someone said was worth $10,000,000 parked behind the venue.  Bill gave several interviews it seemed.  In one of them I heard him give the well-known quote, "writing about music is like dancing about architecture," an interesting thing to say to a music journalist!  I'm not up to dancing about architecture so here's a short clip to give a feel for the music.  The sound isn't high fidelity by any means, recorded on someone's camera mic - I don't know who to credit - but, rest assured, this is just a teaser for the live album to come.  I got a good 96k digital  mix board recording of both concerts.

The spirit of Ornette Coleman was in attendance for both shows, especially in Gent when Bachir Attar gave a passionate account of playing in the procession that brought in Ornette's coffin at his funeral then treated to audience to the same music.  The whole group also played an extensive improvisation of the main theme from Dancing in Your Head, Ornette's 1977 album that included a 1973 recording of Ornette playing with the Master Musicians in Jajouka with William Burroughs present.  That piece is called Midnight Sunrise.  The show in Gent was an overwhelming success and for a few short hours the chaos abated, subsumed by the music.

Our set in Gent ended at midnight. Catering had left us some good food for a post show meal.  We arrived back to the hotel around 2 am.  The Moroccans had a lobby call for 4 am - hardcore!  Bill got a phone call from them at 5 am saying, "We are at the airport, they don't have tickets for us. What should we do, return to the hotel?"  Bill told them that they did indeed have tickets and that going back to the hotel wouldn't do any good.  The confusion stemmed from the budget airline's policy that boarding passes be printed out before going to the airport.  They figured it out and even got their extra luggage on board without charge, but were told to sit near the front of the plane to balance out the load.  I guess they took that advice because the plane successfully got off the ground.  More chaos at the hotel in Warsaw, a problem with currency exchange.  The hotel only accepted Euros in exchange for Polish Zlotys, American dollars were verboten except at the official Currency Exchange vendor down the street.  That's where I went, but it was closed by the time they realized the need for local money.  How are we going to eat?  Room service was a last resort due to the pricy hotel.  Somehow the problem got solved.

The venue in Warsaw was a converted industrial factory that reminded me of a small airplane hanger.  There wasn't any house lights.  All illumination came from theatrical lights.  A bank of lights were placed on the floor in a semi-circle behind the stage bathing the space in the same shade of blue as the winged saxophone in the photo.  The mixing desk was a digital SSL  which I hadn't used before.  I told the PA tech that I would need a guided tour of the board.  He said he was learning it too; had only used it for three days ...  uh oh!  Fortunately, there was a younger assistant who knew it and patiently ran me through its uniquely obtuse protocol until I had it down.  SSL desks sounds great, but they love complexity.  For instance, it's a five step procedure to turn up an auxilliary send ( i.e. an effects send like reverb, delay, or my Kosmos low end machine) whereas on an analog mixing board, like the Midas one in Gent, it's only a matter of reaching over and turning a knob.  It was interesting to compare the board mix recordings from the two shows, one from an analog, the other from a digital desk.  They both sound good with the analog one being distinctly warmer.  Analog still rules in this case, however I doubt the average listener will know the difference after they've both been mastered.

During our set-up I noticed an old friend walk in, Nils Petter Molvaer, a Norwegian jazz trumpet player who has played with Material in the past.  He was part of the support act, billed as Sly & Robbie meet Nils Petter Molvar - Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, the archetypal reggae rhythm section who became known to the world when they anchored Black Uhuru in the late '70s, early '80s.  The name of this group had me flashing on old monster movies - Godzilla meets King Kong, two musical heavyweights destroy Warsaw.  That's an exaggeration, metaphors only go so far; sometimes the map only suggests the territory.

The real destruction came when  Bill Laswell began playing his bass at the start of the Material set.  Backstage, Bill reminded me of the Sierra Nevada reggae festival we played at years ago with Tabla Beat Science when I'd been instructed to make sure the bass sound shook the foundations, a task I was only too happy to oblige.  I had checked out Shakespeare's sound, also quite huge as is his style.  I made sure the factory performance space was filled with low end when Bill began playing and was rewarded with about five people coming up to the mix position distressed by the massiveness, the other 995 or so attendees seemed ok with it, I scan the audience for reactions.  It remained in context with the music and varied dynamically throughout the set.  I was fortunate not to have a tech standing over me with an SPL meter (sound pressure, measures loudness) as was the case in Gent where they were trying to enforce a ridiculous 93 dB limit.  By comparison, the street traffic in New York averages around 90 dB.

When I initially said hello to Nils, he said, " Oh, we were just talking about you regarding mixing Painkiller (John Zorn, Bill Laswell, Mick Harris) concerts."  I felt a little ambivalent hearing that, but took it as an indication to go for the volume. 

Lots of media at this event too.  I overheard Bill being interviewed by an intense individual asking weighty questions like, "What is the purpose of music?"  Didn't hear Bill's answer, but at another point he was talking about watching an old horror film very late at night in Ethiopia with the typical kind of soundtrack that genre has.  As the end credits rolled, the prayer calls from the Koran started up outside blending with the soundtrack to form a unique musical moment.  Now if you had a recording of that... then he mentioned my ambient field recordings.  It's true, I look for those moments.

Conversations in the car: Bill and Peter driving back to the hotel after soundcheck, started with a discussion of what keys to play in to match the untempered pitches of the rhaitas, the Jajoukan horns and the liras, their flutes.  Untempered music, free from the prison of the piano with its fixed tonal center notes not allowing pitches in-between.  Polytonal might be another way to describe it.  At one point while listening to the recording I thought I heard 3 different keys going on.  We cross a bridge and Peter mentions an architect who made a bridge design he has seen in different places that resembles a harp.  They are called Cable-Stayed bridges and were orignally designed by a 16th Century architect named Faust Vrancic.  I don't recall if that's the architect he mentioned, might have been someone more contemporary.  Driving to the airport the following day with Hamid and Graham I am treated to a short explication, history and conflicts of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) a group formed in the mid 60's in Chicago.  Muhal Richard Abrams, the pianist who played with Dejohnette before us in Gent was one of its founders.  I sensed I was privy to some inside information that won't make it into the history books.

The MC for Warsaw was the head promoter who looked like a cross between Dr. John and Roy Rogers for his physical appearance and his white Western suit complete with an arty cowboy hat that would have fit in perfectly with the old Wild Wild West TV show.  I remember him from years ago when we started playing in Warsaw, at first with Praxis and later with Ekstasis.  At that time we played in a formal theater otherwise used as an opera hall from what I remember.  He seemed the same as ever though I don't recall the Western attire back then.

Ten minutes before showtime chaos struck when Cherie announced that the Jajoukans didn't have plane tickets out of Warsaw the next day.  I had given her their plane tickets the day before at the hotel after Yoko had forwarded them to me to print out.  I don't know what happened, but expect Cherie got distracted by the currency exchange/food crisis.  I was at the sound board by then so don't know exactly what went down, but it didn't detract them from the music, and might have even contributed.  Sometimes a little shot of chaos stirs things up forcing one to lock into the presence of the moment to shake it off and move forward - move forward or sink into chaotic dispersion.  For whatever reason or contributing factors, the concert was once again incredible.  Sufi trance music meets American jazz, though jazz seems an inadequate term.  I'll let those who can dance about architecture come up with a suitable genre label.  Maybe something like post-structural jazz which is only saying we don't know what it is except that it's beyond jazz.

Personally, I managed to avoid most of the direct hits of chaos until the shows were over and we were flying home.  I will cop to calling upon occult assistance in the hotel room each show day, something I've done for years and is probably the main reason I've survived long enough on these crazy musical adventures to relate these tales.  Going through security at the Warsaw airport I passed the metal detector okay yet they made me go back to take the Kosmos out of its bag and run it through the X-ray machine again; first time I've ever had to do that.  This time going through the metal detector I set it off even though I was exactly the same when I passed through a moment before.  So they frisked me and in all the confusion I didn't see my small, non-electronic notebook, not realizing it was missing until a few minutes later when buying some tea.  I rushed back, but it had vanished.  It had all my notes for this blog.  No big deal, I remembered most of them anyway and started writing them down again.  The chaos really hit two days later checking into a motel in Ojai, California to begin supervising mixes for a Johnny Boyd record  still in progress.  My laptop computer was perched on my roll away suitcase like many times before when gravity beckoned and the suitcase toppled.  I thought the laptop would be undamaged, it was in a padded case and it fell on carpet, but when I powered it up the monitor display was crazy and unreadable despite no visible sign of damage.  My laptop and cell phone constitute my office on the road so it was a bit of a setback.

When you ride with Jesse James you can expect you might get shot.  What doesn't kill you makes you stronger (quotes from Bill Laswell and Fred Nietzsche respectively).  If you survive riding with the James gang you might get to share in the loot.  Powerful creative types attract chaos.  Bachir Attar and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Sufi heirs to the musicians of the Sultan's Royal Court of Morocco, profoundly influencing counter-cultural giants such as Brion Gysin, Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Brian Jones and the Rolling Stones among many others can be expected to leave chaos in their wake.  Chaos doesn't seems nihilst or evil to a vital creative endeavor.  Its resistance acts as a pushing force, pushing one ahead to stay above it.  Pushing the artist to the edge to either sink or swim.  Chaos-rhythm, chaosmos.

photo by Cherie Nutting, Warsaw

 photo by Cherie Nutting