Wednesday, September 28, 2011

OUR BELOVED REVOLUTIONARY SUMMER: Alex Cline Says Thank You to the AACM (1 of 2)

[Photo courtesy of Ernestine Lona]

If you unleash Alex Cline on his own record collection, you may have to cancel your plans for the evening. But you will get to see and handle many rare and precious artifacts, the fruit of the percussionist/composer’s musical obsessions that date back to pre-search engine days. (If anything, the “search engine” would be the two buses one had to take to some dusty record/head shop in some obscure corner of Los Angeles to dig though stacks of hard-to-find imports from labels like BYG, Delmark and Pathé-Marconi.)

Tonight, in the memory-piled guest house/music room/man cave of his L.A. home, Cline is pulling landmarks from the Chicago avant-garde jazz movement of the 1960s and 1970s: an original copy of Sun Ra’s Heliocentric Worlds, Vol. 1 or a gonzo handmade hard-plastic cover to Live in Egypt, inked in neon-colored marker with no title or track listing. (“They would just hand these out after shows,” Cline remarks warmly, as if reveling in the pre-punk D.I.Y.-ness of it all.) There’s a copies of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Fanfare for the Warriors with Christian Piper’s provocative red-and-black cover, or Oliver Lake’s Heavy Spirits, with its glaring black and white photo of the saxophonist daring you to listen to what’s inside.

Due to the demands of family and day job, Cline hasn’t listened to many of these memories in years. But these are records that the 55-year old admits in his youth “I played every day for months, just totally immersing myself in them as listening experiences.” The Art Ensemble’s 1969 People In Sorrow is another one of “those records”; he carefully hands the sleeve to me, with its pale wheatgrain cover and minimalist-handbill artwork.

This weekend, Cline will mount the most ambitious and audacious project of his 35+ year career, a one-off concert that will reinterpret People In Sorrow, an epic 40-minute suite of exacting musical sculpture and deep spiritual mood swings. The show, which will feature an 11-even piece ensemble of Cline’s frequent collaborators from both coasts – Vinny Golia, Oliver Lake, Dan Clucas, Dwight Trible, Jeff Gauthier, Maggie Parkins, Mark Dresser, Myra Melford, Zeena Parkins, G.E. Stinson – is arguably the most anticipated concert of this year’s Angel City Jazz Festival. The festival’s official programs, flyers and t-shirts all carry the Kio Griffith-designed image of elder Art Ensemble saxophonist and People composer Roscoe Mitchell in nutty-looking swimmer’s goggles. (Mitchell will follow Cline’s tribute with his own trio when they play REDCAT on October 2, tix available here.)

Recorded in Paris in July 1969 with just four musicians -- multi-reedmen Mitchell and Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors People In Sorrow remains one of the signposts of the AEC aesthetic: a long-form tone poem performed on a cornucopia of instruments that deftly blends improvisation with composition. It also remains an hugely influential record despite being as hard to find now as it was when it was was released 42 years ago. (Despite being from Chicago, the AEC’s fifteen recordings after relocating briefly to Europe from 1969 to 1971 were essentially imports.) Critic Gary Giddins proclaimed that People In Sorrow “may well be the Art Ensemble’s masterpiece” – although AllMusic’s Scott Yanow added cautiously that the record “is not for everyone's taste, but worth the struggle.”

“Struggle” is the optimum word here, not just in the emotional commitment needed to play this music but also the apocalyptic boil the world was coming to when it was first recorded – especially in the area of race relations, a subject as inseparable from the music of the AEC as its home city. (Their mantra was “Great Black Music.”) Much of People In Sorrow's sustained power comes from its eerie, monastic calm in the midst of rapidly spreading chaos. One of Mitchell’s most famous quotes is that “fifty percent of music is silence.”

With his Buddhist powers of recall, Cline remembers the year vividly. “1969 was an incredibly violent year in American life,” he says softly over a steam-leaking cup of tea. “Despite Woodstock -- which, depending on who you are seems like either an inspiring high mark or just an embarrassment -- there was a point when peace and love gave way to anger and frustration and throwing rocks and bottles. Lyndon Johnson’s civil right and poverty-related advances eventually gave way to a really dismal escalation in Vietnam. I was 13 years old at the time, and yet the harsh realities of ‘Where is the country going?’ and most importantly ‘Will I be drafted?’ leaned pretty heavily on everyone I associated with back with in those days. Then Nixon was elected president. And all during this time, the Art Ensemble was in France making this great music.”

What’s strange in more cosmic turns was that Alex Cline actually beat the AEC to Europe by a year. In Spring 1968, his schoolteacher parents took Cline and his twin brother Nels on a five-month sabbatical to Europe just as the continent was chewing itself to bits. Packed into a Volkswagen squareback, they hit Paris two months before the violent student demonstrations. They saw red paint splattered on the gates of Hamburg. In Madrid, they watched Franco’s police surround protestors with drawn guns. And they couldn’t seem to outrun the unrest even in their own country: On an April morning at a cafe in Lisbon, their Portuguese waiter approached the Clines and cocked a finger to his head, saying, “Dr. King, Dr. King, boom boom boom.”

Under such circumstances, it’s not difficult to imagine the impact the AEC and its attendant arts umbrella the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) had on a self-confessed “white kid from West Los Angeles.” When the AACM was making its first epoch-shattering recordings, the twins were coming into their own as rapacious music snerds. “Adolescence was just one of those grin-and-bear-it kind of experiences for me and Alex,” Nels Cline once told an interviewer in 1999. “By that time, we were completely music-obsessed to the point where our friends just stopped talking to us. At [Daniel Webster] Junior High they spread the rumor that we were heroin addicts.”

Music for the AACM was an artistic experience en total embracing performance art, poetry, costumes, face paint and improvisation. Even at such a young age, the Cline boys' had a love of surrealist imposture and a penchant for Dadaist whimsy along similar – if much more Romper Room -- lines. They formed various fetal-stage “bands” with geek-chic names (Android Funnel, Frog Prints, Glirendree). They put together chapbooks of absurdist poetry with titles like Burnt Toast and James Thurberesque short sketches called “Goo Stories.” From Junior High all the way to what Alex refers to dryly as “our jazz-musically-formative, alienated, and thoroughly depressed high school years,” their best friend may have been a Wollensak tape recorder, upon which they taught themselves the joys of overdubbing. Inspired by the cut-and-slice artistry of Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, they made concept tapes full of spoken word, original “songs” like “Slippery Elephant Trunks" and “Non-Stop Chicken Flight” and plain adenoidal silliness on 3-inch reels with psychedelic-colored dot stickers all over the boxes and their own hand-drawn inserts. They conspired to enter the junior high school talent contest with something they called “The Dead Plastic Ballet” in which they offered to play their self-taught noize while wearing scuba masks and flippers, concluding the act by riding vacuum cleaners like motorcycles. They were turned down flat.

Of course, later in their lives the Clines would make that rare and hallowed crossover from fans to serious and respected players in their own right. In many ways, their seperate but ever-entwined careers have attempted to bridge the gap between California and Chicago -- fusing Zappa’s cathartic outrage with the Art Ensemble’s mystical textures. (Nels is the lead guitarist for the Windy City-based rock group may now pass through Ellis Island.) Alex, in particular, seems to have absorbed the liberating lessons of the AACM right down his voluminous collection of percussion instruments, which used to take him around 2 1/2 hours to set up for a gig.

It was in this dense forest that we sat down for a brief, pre-concert chat:

THE BEAST: Do you remember when you first heard People In Sorrow? How did it sort of bleed into your head and into what was going on in your life?
ALEX CLINE: I got into the Art Ensemble when I was in high school, from ‘71-74 and it was was not one of the first recordings of theirs I heard. My brother and I were already pretty far gone when it came to scouring the bins for obscure recorded material at that point. [laughter] I don’t remember exactly how things lined up for People In Sorrow to come my way, but it stood out for a number of reasons. First, it essentially takes up a whole record. Second, when I heard it, it was so intensely subtle and meditative compared to most of the stuff I had heard up to that point, and it was a breathtaking experience hearing it. I was just telling [guitarist] G.E. Stinson last night, at that time I was hearing so many influential and inspiring recordings and seeing so many performances by people that were life changing to me. There were certain recordings that were so indelible that I listened to them almost daily for a very long time. Then there were the other recordings that were equally inspirational but were so intense a listening experience that I could only listen to them if the conditions were right. They wouldn’t work at just any time, at all. People In Sorrow was in the second category. It wasn’t one of those records I listened to over and over and tried to learn every note because I felt it was too deep for that. It demanded full concentration, and not just musically…There was some strong, extra-musical context that was somehow being communicated to me, some deep emotional and spiritual sort of quality.

The Art Ensemble of Chicago (from left): Don Moye, Roscoe Mitchell,
Lester Bowie, Joseph Jarman, Malachi Favors
[Photo courtesy of Enid Farber]

I guess there are the albums you share – 'Dude, you gotta hear this!' – and the ones you sort of keep to yourself. Closed door, candles, meditative sunset…is People In Sorrow one of the latter?
Yeah it was in that category, but because I had a twin brother who had similar musical interests, I never really kept anything to myself and vice versa…[saxophonist] Vinny Golia mentioned something me when I was trying to rope him into doing this concert. He remembered early in our association, back in the mid-70s, sitting in the back room of my parents' guest house with me and Nels and talking about this record and I was sharing how deeply I was into it. Obviously, the Art Ensemble and the AACM were people who had a great impact on all of us. The whole idea of me and Vinny amassing our instruments wasn't purely an AACM thing, but certainly a big part of their influence in that these were musicians who did not limit themselves in any way to any one instrument. Anything and everything was fair game, and as a result the musical vocabulary became so broad, the palette so expansive, that people like me and my brother who were so captivated with sound and did instrumental textures and colors were immediately impressed by that. I listen to these records now and I’m hit with how so many of the elements that wound up being important in my own music-making are clearly in evidence, and People In Sorrow is one of those, which is part of what led me to the crazy idea of redoing it.

[Tune in Friday for the conclusion of this interview, where Alex recommends his top AACM recordings, embarks on acquiring his People In Sorrow ensemble, and recalls one very important lunch with its original composer.]

For People In Sorrow: An Homage by Alex Cline will unfurl itself at the REDCAT Theater on Sunday, Oct, 2 at 7pm. The Roscoe Mitchell Trio will play the second half of this concert at 8:30PM.

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