Quick hits (free jazz edition)

This month, it’s all about art that challenges the set structures of its form, art that’s unafraid to work without a clear foundation, art in which the background and foreground elements are blurred, art that forces its audience to swim into it without any (at first) obvious signposts or bearings. Free jazz is a state of mind as much as it is a (poorly defined) genre, so this edition makes some allowances for comics. Let’s go.

All Over Coffee (2007) by Paul Madonna: How far can you reduce a comic before it’s no longer a comic? Is a single panel a comic or a cartoon? (Cartoon.) What about a single panel, containing several panels of words? What if the words bear no relation to the image? What if there are several images but they don’t seem to follow any order? What if all these disembodied images and words lack people or any animal life whatsoever? In short, what is Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee all about? It appears weekly in the San Francisco Chronicle, and each illustration features a detailed freehand drawing—or several—of the San Francisco landscape, with sinuous graywash shading and occasional punctuations of full color. Words—little dialogues between people, half-thoughts, philosophical musings—overlay on the landscape, but it’s difficult to convince the reader that word and image are in conversation, exactly, in Madonna’s work. Sometimes, he gets off little jokes. If you read long enough, you’ll realize that Maurice, a coffeeshop denizen (and maybe owner), is a recurring character. But—enough with the questions!—if Maurice is never seen, and known only in cryptic weekly fragments, is he even a character? Still, the work coheres. Madonna’s thin line catches wonderful details and, because he doesn’t use a ruler or photographs to trace form, Madonna crafts a San Francisco that’s almost photographically true but idiosyncratically his. It’s as if a flaneur took all-day walks through the city he loves, eavesdropping and watching, and then sat down at midnight to record it all from memory, without notes. That gray watercolor captures everything from sunlight to shadow, on trees and buildings and street signs alike. To be fair, the stories start making a sort of Zen sense if you read long enough. And, even when they’re bad, they’re short—and the art’s never less than great. B+

The Frank Book (2003) by Jim Woodring: Because Jim Woodring draws shadows and shade without the use of crosshatching or any sort of watercolor wash, his comics look like engravings. His line is thick and bold. His panels, as intricate though they may be, seem solid and firm, like woodcut illustrations for ancient fables. But how firm (i.e., non-fluid) are fables, anyway? Aesop’s fables, without the ameliorating moral at the end, just seem cruel. Grimms’s Fairy Tales seems to leave its heroes up to violent, vicious fate as often as to triumph. Hans Christian Andersen leaves children queasy. (Seriously, try actually reading “The Little Mermaid” to your daughter instead of seeing the Disney movie, and see if the girl doesn’t end up in tears.) One Thousand and One Nights has a lot more sex than you remember, and a lot more selfishness, too. Folktales are our initial, rough attempts to make sense of the world’s mysteries, and they leave a lot of the mystery—including the unresolved meanness and raw fervor—intact. Woodring’s Frank tales, told entirely without dialogue and mostly without words or verbal cues, belong to the folktale realm. The Frank Book is a book of fairy tales for the post-1960s world. They’re psychedelic, especially in Woodring’s high-contrast black-and-white; the full-color stories somehow seem more normal, though they’re drawn and painted lushly. In place of life lessons, Woodring often ends the tales of his amoral anthropomorphic Frank with oblique parodies of Aesop’s morals. Frank is naïve but causes damages wherever he goes; in that sense, he’s no different than countless cartoon characters from Krazy Kat to Mickey Mouse. And, like them, he learns nothing from his travails; in the next story, he’s likely to cause the same harm. The difference is that Woodring takes cartoon antics to their logical extremes, no matter how acid-drenched the art becomes. The violence gets gory; characters who get dead stay dead; the ever-shifting world is menacing and paranoid, as it would be if we actually experienced it. (Try to imagine living in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Try to imagine living in a Krazy Kat cartoon, in which even the atmosphere changes from panel to panel.) Woodring takes the funny-animal comic as far as it can go, and finds it, rightfully so, to be scary as hell. Through it all, his design sense—again, the seeming stability and rigidity of his form—is gorgeous and secure. It’s all the better to lure you into the darkness. A

50th Birthday Celebration, Vol. 8 (2004) by John Zorn, Susie Ibarra, and Wadada Leo Smith: I’ve spent four years easing myself into John Zorn, growing to love his angry, alarming, often gorgeous work through his 50th-birthday celebration concerts and then branching outward. Indeed, I would recommend the Masada show, Masada String Trio, and even the 3-disc Bar Kokhba Sextet set to Zorn neophytes with certitude. However… Vol. 8, featuring his duets with drummer Susie Ibarra (see below) and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, gears toward the diehards. (Notice that even the applause here is hesitant, and this is an audience of true believers.) Zorn’s saxophone skronks, screeches, blasts of recklessness, and inattention to melody is everywhere present on this disc. Ibarra tries to rein in the fury. The jarring blasts, however, reign supreme. “Visitation” is seven minutes of Zorn spitting and braying at the audience, via alto sax. The disc’s second half, featuring Smith, gets to a few instances of beauty, but it’s too much brass against brass; the duo needs to highlight differences in approach more than it can do. Throughout the disc, there’s no rhyme or reason to what’s coming next—it’s like changing channels, in Hell. Can’t win ’em all, especially with this guy. C-

Radiance (1999) by Susie Ibarra Trio: Drummer Susie Ibarra prefers insinuation to muscularity, not that she can’t do the shakalakaboom. But she likes cymbal flourishes, woodblocks, and rimshots, and so her sound astonishes by slow burn. She builds melodies, so much so that her timekeeping skills seem less than adept on first listen. Listen again, to, say, “Radiance: Dreams,” where her nuanced solo develops into intricacies so like guitar notes that it’s hard to note the perfect bass drum accompaniment. Other times, as in the third section of the “Radiance” suite (“Laughter”), Ibarra subsides her rhythmic pulse so much that she lets Cooper-Moore’s diddley-bo do all the work. Cooper-Moore plonks and glides with piano and harp throughout this set, and violinist Charles Burnham adds a jagged, rockish edge to the proceedings. Ibarra’s compositions—everything here but a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s (!) “Up from the Skies”—are open-ended, beginning and ending in clusters that don’t quite resolve, for all their loveliness. They’re pastoral in sound—an arrangement of harp, piano, and violin can’t help but yield prettiness and vast expanse—but less than peaceful in their nervous jumps from section to section. Even a ballad such as “Half Moon” seems pregnant with worry; Burnham’s shriek-like bowing helps to shake things up. It is, though, Ibarra’s show. She propels, coaxes, withdraws, adds colors, and otherwise reads her other players’ needs telepathically. She reads her own, too, and her flights of fancy—the solo during “A Glimpse,” her brushwork in “Jagged Threads”—provide the greatest pleasure of all. A+

The Siket Disc (1999) by Phish: Phish’s members bring together so vast an array of influences from the 1970s—prog rock, synth pop, country rock, new wave, funk—that it sometimes seems like four wonderful musicians in search of a singular sound. In 1997, they began to find it. Energized by a triumphant winter tour through Europe, Phish returned to the States in March 1997, ready to record. But what, exactly, the band didn’t know. They booked a studio, and then spent four straight days improvising. Instead of a verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus structure, they began with everybody playing a modal pattern, and then adding and subtracting layers as necessary. What emerged became the backbone for 1998’s The Story of the Ghost. The castoffs—too weird to be wrapped into song structures, too danceable and melodic to be thrown away—were mixed by keyboardist Page McConnell into a coherent suite of 40 minutes, and named after the session’s engineer, John Siket. Ghost and Siket share a funk aesthetic that veers into melancholia, and most of the songs fade in and fade out (because they were cut from looooooong segments of that seemingly never-ending March session). “My Left Toe” emerges slowly from murk, enjoys four minutes of minimalist disco, and sinks back into the water. “Insects” sounds like its name—menacing, snapping, skittish. “The Name Is Slick” starts off as funk fit for a film noir soundtrack—the drums almost seem to peer around a corner; the guitar notes are tiptoes; the clavinet casts shadows; the bass lopes. “What’s the Use” develops into a high-rising structure organically, maybe even accidentally, as if the band just naturally veers towards A and B sections. Actually, it’s alarming how often these offhand gestures coalesce into songs that you could fit lyrics around. There’s a noticeable absence of soloing—especially from guitarist Trey Anastasio, who can overwhelm the band’s sound—and voices are just sound elements in the mix. But everyone’s playing, always, and everyone’s paying attention to each other. The Siket Disc is an odd concoction: headphones disco. A

Surrender to the Air (1996) by Trey Anastasio: Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio explores his Sun Ra fetish, and finds it congenial to his vision. He’s serious enough to garner respect—avant-jazz all-stars such as Marshall Allen, Michael Ray, Marc Ribot, John Medeski, and James Harvey don’t just put out for any johnny-come-lately. The horns lead the way, tearing through a totally improvised session that blares, bleats, and brushes softly in equal measures. The guitarists Anastasio and Ribot stand on the sidelines, mostly, interjecting quiet snippets or holding down the rhythm while everyone else solos. And everybody else is soloing, constantly. Like the early New Orleans jazz, everyone seems to be going off at once. With bassist Burbridge, drummers Jon Fishman and Bob Gullotti, and two rhythmically-proficient guitarists, the album has a wonderful ebb and flow rhythm, surging to raucous highs and then sliding into comfortable lows. It’s noisy—I can’t think of a moment when there’s less than four musicians playing at any one time. It’s beautiful—or, at least, there are moments of loveliness throughout, when the ensemble suddenly settles into an accidental cadence or (more often) a rhythmic swell. But, mostly, it’s democratic. And, if nothing else, free jazz reminds us that democracy is messy. A-

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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