Friday, August 2, 2013

Jazz Standards from a Parallel Universe

The following "jazz-meets-literature" post was written in collaboration with The Beast's friend and colleague Anthony Miller, who also inspired a rather memorable post we did here last year. Mr. Miller is an Editor-at-Large for Black Clock and has also contributed to Bookforum, Los Angeles magazine, Poets & Writers and L.A. CityBeat. You can read his most current work at the site HiLobrow.

[image by James Jean]

References to jazz and jazz musicians abound in the writing of Thomas Pynchon. In his short story “Entropy,” Duke, the leader of the Duke di Angelis quartet, inspired by Gerry Mulligan’s jettisoning of root chords, explains to Meatball Mulligan how he had arrived at a “new conception” for how his ensemble should perform.

              A horrified awareness was dawning on Meatball. “And the next logical extension,” he said.
             “Is to think everything,” Duke announced with simple dignity. “Roots, line, everything.”

This results in a performance where musicians have to stop to sort out why they are “thinking” different entrances, time signatures, and keys. Duke concedes to Meatball, “there are a few bugs to work out.”

In this vein, the double bill of SASSAS's AD HOC series began Sunday night in an appropriately Pynchonian manner with L.A. avant-jazz sax titan Vinny Golia apologizing for one of his players having a flat tire and inadvertently turning his planned saxophone quartet into a trio. No problemo for a bunch of highly trained improvisers. "The point of all these textural combinations we're gonna do is to show the versatility of the saxophone," Golia rasped, "which by the way can also be used as a weapon, but if we keep our cool, nobody should get hurt."

The Vinny Golia Saxophone Trio Quartet in San Diego
[photo by Jeff Kaiser]

Golia, along with alto saxophonist Gavin Templeton and tenor saxophonist Jon Armstrong, played four songs in their 40-minute set -- "5" into "Old Man's Word" into "Un-Named" and capped with the memorably titled "Phil Shiffley Shaves His Eyebrows" -- but you'd never know it. Beginning with a growing series of atonal wheezes and blats like an old calliope firing up, the trio blended each song into a seamless suite by mixing in brief flights of improvisation. Golia was the conductor as well as the melodic anchor, switching from soprano sax to an enormous bass saxophone to a tiny, recently invented curiosity with a Middle Eastern sound called the piccolo saxophone. What was clear from the younger players was their command of jazz history and how they hid tinges of bebop and swing inside their angular freeplay: Templeton's tone could be as lush and breathy as Johnny Hodges', while Walsh's was unmistakably drawn from the Church of Charlie Parker. For his part, Golia looked pleased at what his pupils came up with.

After a brief intermission came a Chicago and Bay Area aggregate of musicians who performed one extended composition in three movements based on fictional songs from Pynchon’s novels V., The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity's Rainbow. Led by multi-instrumentalist Kyle Bruckmann, the septet calling themselves WRACK (in honor, no doubt, of Pynchon’s affection for mysterious and ominous-sounding acronyms) offered a new way to “listen” to songs Bruckmann described as "jazz standards from a parallel universe." As he explained that he structured his compositions to see how these songs "would behave if they were standards," his very elucidation made him sound like one of the behavioral scientists from Gravity's Rainbow. Reflecting Pynchon's dense, cracked-mirror universe, the music quoted and spliced from a SuperCollider of free jazz, bebop and swing to carnival music, Le Jazz Hot (courtesy of Jen Clare Paulson's caressing viola) and even some down-and-dirty burlesque bump-and-grind. Like Pynchon’s writing, the music was imbued with a sly sense of humor underneath the cubistic postmodern lens.

Pynchon’s worlds are punctuated by songs, and his characters often launch into them as if they inhabited ‘40s movie musicals. Sometimes the music the band played embodied the books’ characters, other times it articulated their themes. As they sometimes stuttered in and out of sound -- the percussion simulating static or a set of electronic bleats -- as if warming up (or down), Pynchon’s specter of entropy suffused the room, surrounding and enveloping the listener. There were no lyrics to help the listener pinpoint exactly which song might be represented at any moment, although there were musical clues, repeated instruments, and motifs.

It might be useful here to give a name to each of these discrete movements in this phantasmagorical score. The first section of the movement from V. could have been called “Keep Cool but Care,” after an apothegm from McClintic Sphere, V.’s Ornette Coleman-inspired alto saxman who plays at the V-Spot, Pynchon’s version of the Five Spot. WRACK raised a spirited cacophony appropriate to the novel's Nueva York streets where a Whole Sick Crew of artists and bohemians wander while albino alligators (and their hunters) roam the sewers below. The second section, focused on the six songs in Lot 49, could have been entitled “Shall I Decipher A World?,” after the question posed by protagonist Oedipa Maas as she scrambles to make sense of a secret postal service and other conspiracies. The feeling of this section was more introspective and plaintive, incorporating an occasional Cuban jazz feel and other mid-60s sounds. Here Bruckmann’s oboe ratcheted up the paranoia with a kind of sinuous, snake charmer-like influence. Drummer Tim Daisy's arms were constant blurs as he kept up a skittery, double-time rhythm redolent of Gene Krupa with a (slightly) lighter touch. Trombonist Jeb Bishop soloed so furiously one could hear his momentous intakes of breath as his slide threatened to fly right off his horn into the audience.

By the time we reached the Gravity’s Rainbow section (undoubtedly it is the most difficult of Pynchon’s novels to get a handle on), there was no need for a title. (Maybe “Mindless Pleasures,” after one of the book’s provisional titles.) One touchstone for this movement was the infamous tenth section of the novel where Tyrone Slothrop hallucinates a trip down a toilet in a bathroom in Boston’s Roseland Ballroom in 1939 to the sounds of Charlie Parker's "Cherokee":

              The song playing is one more lie about white crimes. But more musicians have floundered
            in the channel to “Cherokee” than have got through from end to end. All those long, long 
            notes... what’re they up to, all that time to do something inside of? is it an Indian spirit plot?

WRACK incorporated parts of “Cherokee," along with the folk standard “Red River Valley,” which appears with a more parodic set of lyrics in Pynchon’s Roseland Ballroom sequence. (Bruckman also revealed that Alban Berg’s jarring 1921 opera Wozzeck, also cited in Gravity’s Rainbow, played a part in this final movement.) Darren Johnston’s trumpet provided some of the screaming across the sky, blaring calamitously like a siren or a klaxon, but also helping to underscore more contemplative passages.

After the show, we split up to speak to the musicians. When asked how he was able to keep track of where one song ended and another began, Bruckmann smiled. "It's all part of the game," he said. When asked if he caught Sharknado on TV, Golia grinned, "Of course! I loved it!"

We felt Mr. P. would have approved of both conversations.


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